What Are the Best Books For Fiction Writers?

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Yesterday Cornelia Dolian (@cldolian) asked “which 5 – 10 works of fiction would you cite as necessary reading for writers?” What a delicious question!

I love this question because there’s really no wrong answer, and it is like a Rorschach test for writers. What you see in the question depends on you– what you like to read, what you like to write, what you aspire to do with your writing. I’m currently writing a middle-grade novel and I find that shapes my answer.

When I read the question I immediately thought of formative books from my childhood– the books that made me want to be a writer because they jump-started my imagination and made me feel like there were amazing worlds out there to be discovered and experienced in books. I could probably come up with a long list, but these four books are the first ones that came to mind– the first and the truest, maybe.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1963) – Because I could imagine being Meg Murray; because one of the trio of women (like the Fates!) who visit Meg turns out to have been a star; because the thing that heals and saves these characters is love.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950) – A door to another world at the back of a wardrobe full of boring old coats– who could resist?

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien (1937) – Even though there weren’t really any female characters, I was along for the ride; Tolkien’s world was so big, so full of unexpected creatures and events that I just invented a character for myself.

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964) – Harriet is nosy and says mean things about people in her notebook. She’s almost an anti-hero. But I loved her for her curiosity, for her writing zeal, and for her bravery. Even when the worst happens, she doesn’t quit writing.

Then there are the books that I read over and over when I got a bit older; they’re not for children. Something about them– the story, the characters, the imagined world– obsessed me and I could not leave them alone. These books scared me and changed me, and I keep going back to them.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985) – For me, the pull of this book was as much about the characters as it was about the world. Our world turned wrong. I read an interview with Margaret Atwood where she said that everything in the book was something that had happened somewhere, at some moment in history. Do you have chills down your spine yet?

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992) – On the very first page you know there’s a murder, and you know who did it. Then you have to know why. When you find out why, you are stunned and fascinated.

Even though I’m writing for children, I’d like to carry some of that strangeness and darkness into my work.

So that’s my list. I’m not sure that this list will help anybody be a better writer, except me. Maybe the key is just to keep looking for the books that delight or obsess you, and then figure out what you can learn from them.




Oh, Pioneers


So when I was little, I read all of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and pretended to be a pioneer. I never ate a pig’s tail but I did convince my mother to let me pour maple syrup on the the snow to make maple syrup snow candy. At least that’s the way I remember it. Continue reading

Mind Mapping Your Revision

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I finished the first draft of my novel back in May and now I’m working on revising it. I’ve been reading Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults by Cheryl B. Klein. Klein is an editor with many books to her credit, including the United States editions of the Harry Potter series and Millicent Min: Girl Genius by Lisa Yee (as well as the other books in the Millicent Min trilogy). One of the things Klein discusses in her book is that writer needs to understand who the protagonist is– what she loves, hates, wants, needs, and fears.

I tried doing some free writing on these topics, but felt like I still wasn’t really connecting with my character. Then I remembered mind mapping. I grabbed my journal and started with the character’s name in the middle of the page. Then I started writing things that I know about her– including the names of family and friends, as well as what she loves and hates. You can see the current map in the picture above. I’m still working on it– at a minimum I want to add needs and fears– but I feel like I’m getting a better idea of who she is and how she changes by the end of the book.

You’ll notice the map is kind of messy– not like some of the pretty mind map examples you can find online. I’m putting something messy out on purpose because while I like to look at pretty examples, I don’t think real idea generation looks like that, at least not when I do it. I find ideas don’t leap from my mind fully formatted with correct punctuation and spelling. The more I let go of the need to be tidy, the more I can generate ideas that make my writing interesting and real.

What Does Your Character Want?


Today I’m thinking about the protagonist of the book I’m working on. Her name is Maddie and she’s eleven. She’s got a dog, an older sister, and a really big secret. But what does she want?

What did I want, when I was 11?

I remember wanting pretty hair. I tried growing it long but then got tired of it and got it all cut off with a cute little Dorothy Hamill-style wedge. (Don’t laugh! They were really popular.) I wanted a ten-speed bike, but I only had a three-speed. I wanted friends, and had some. I wanted to be the best at something.

Continue reading

Why Do You Write?

woman sitting on park bench writing

Faster! The deadline approaches!

Someone asked me this question recently and I had no ready answer. I think of reasons why people do things (at least here in the United States) and they basically come down to:

  1. Make money
  2. Lose weight/look better
  3. Impress other people

At least, that’s what I can tell from my Facebook feed. I can pretty much guarantee you that #2 is not a Reason to Write. As to #1 and #3, here are some reasons to write: Continue reading

Do You Nano?

Here is where the magic happens

Here is where the magic happens

Tomorrow is the beginning of National Novel Writing Month or nanowrimo, as it has come to be known. Don’t let the word “novel” throw you off, because all you need to do is write 50,000 words between Nov. 1st and Nov. 30th and you win. There’s no one judging the quality of what you write. Continue reading

Re-Read Me

Make them readers when they are young and have no will to resist.

Make them readers when they are young and have no will to resist.

So I like to read books more than once. Apparently not everyone does this. I know this because my spouse will spot me re-reading a book and say, “So you’re reading that again?” Yes. Yes I am.

I’m not proud of my re-reading habits, especially since the library is full of books that I haven’t read. Shouldn’t I be improving my mind by encountering new ideas, characters, settings? Yes. But sometimes it’s not what my mind wants. My mind wants to slip into a familiar place. It’s like wearing an old sweatshirt. It feels good.

Here are some books that I’ve read more than once:

  • The Secret History – Donna Tartt
  • Speak – Laurie Halse Anderson
  • The Cracker Factory – Joyce Rebeta-Burditt
  • The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy – J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Just Listen – Sarah Dessen
  • Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
  • Harry Potter 1 – 7 – J. K. Rowling
  • The Other Boleyn Girl – Phillipa Gregory
  • The Sparrow – Mary Doria Russell

It’s kind of a weird hodge-podge of stuff, isn’t it?

Photo Credit
Photo Reading by ThomasLife via flickr and licensed under CC 2.0

What to Write About

Lily in the back of the CRV

I will haunt you if you don’t write about me.

I used to characterize my bored and sad brain with a line from T. S. Eliot:

Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season

Lately my brain metaphor has switched and I see all the randomness (or seeming randomness) as flotsam and jetsam. Is the brain a sea? Or maybe all our brains together are one big sea, a little bit like Jung’s collective unconscious, but wetter.

So the mind drifts here or there, and when I meditate I see how it goes from thing to thing to thing, but winds up so often at the same place: there is something wrong with me, or I did something wrong, or my feelings are wrong. I should be happier, sadder, more at ease, less judgmental. The list goes on. When I’m not busy castigating myself or trying to make myself get up and clean the house, I notice how certain ideas and things tend to show up again and again. These are the things my mind is stuck on. Here’s a partial list, in no particular order: Continue reading

10,000 Reasons to Keep Writing


Recently I’ve been making an effort to exercise more. I set a goal of averaging 10,000 steps a day, and I track my steps with my phone. According to a random article on the internet, the 10,000 steps per day goal comes from a marketing campaign to sell pedometers in Japan. So, there’s no magic number of steps that will make anybody fit and healthy. But something about that number is alluring anyway.

I started thinking about the number ten thousand and how it surfaces in various contexts: Continue reading